Top of mind for me as the month of June came to an end was the very recent passing of at least 21 children and young people in the ‘tavern’ tragedy in East London. This loss has left our nation in shock, and demanding answers.
We send our deepest condolences to the many families now in mourning and wish a speedy recovery to those still in hospital. How could something like this happen? Who allows children as young as 13 into a place that sells alcohol? Who allows youngsters out partying into the early hours of the morning? What normal society allows its children to die in such a manner? What will a future fashioned by people brought up like this look like? These are some of the questions being asked.
Our society needs to face the reality that we have an alcohol and drug problem which is affecting young people the most. It starts with parents sending an underage child to buy cigarettes and alcohol for them. I was once that child. Taverns and small liquor outlets generally sell to minors. Laws and regulations alone are not enough to deal with these realities. We have to address an underlying lawlessness which is ravaging the fabric of society in our country.
Of course, the challenges facing South Africa are not unique. We are not exceptional. As I travel in other countries I am constantly made aware of the extent to which South African problems are often manifestations of global challenges. For instance, early in June I was in the United States, amongst other things to engage in a dialogue between Americans and South Africans sharing experience and wisdom on how to respond to deepening distrust of the state and of the law, and how to reckon with the routine use of violence within democratic polity.
Also in June, I travelled to Eswatini, a country still waiting for liberation in many realms of public life. I was part of a delegation from South Africa travelling with the Imbumba Foundation in support of the work of our partner in Eswatini – the Kuhlase SS Education Foundation. The trip was an eye opener on what those who are trying to do transnational charity work have to go through when taking goods across borders. The most frustrating dimension is having to deal with rude, unhelpful and dismissive officials. Fortunately, on this occasion no one asked for any bribes. It was disheartening though having to spend over three hours at the border unsure about what was to happen next and how much longer you had to wait in the cold. SS Kuhlase was a community leader brutally murdered in Eswatini a few years ago. His case, like so many others in our region, has gone cold. The family continues to support the children in the community with dignity packs, school shoes and uniforms, books and other basics.
So many images remain with me from that trip. Perhaps the most abiding are those from our visit to a refugee camp, where we met incredible young people who have been displaced from their countries of birth by politics or economic needs. Seeing so many happy faces was heartwarming. These youngsters have little or no idea about their citizenship status, of course. I am left with a deep sadness about their future prospects. Too much in our world hinges on who belongs and who does not. And now we are into July, what we call Mandela month. We welcome support from all our friends for our Mandela Day campaign this year. The needs are many. The means to meet them are in our hands.